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Leaping ahead

After being named Drapers' Young Fashion Footwear Retailer of the Year in May, Bullfrogs owners Michael Ashison and Demian Brewster tell Laura Weir what has spawned their success

As music wafts out of the double-doored faaade of footwear chain Bullfrogs onto the hot summer streets of Greenwich in south London, owners Michael Ashison and Demian Brewster are upstairs taking phone calls and placing orders in the stuffy head office.

Trend mood boards and photos of staff parties cover the walls, along with a Drapers calendar. The Best Young Fashion Footwear trophy, won by the four-store business at the Drapers Footwear Awards in May, sits in pride of place on the windowsill.

Back in the 1990s, trendy Greenwich teens would flock to Bullfrogs clutching the pay from their Saturday jobs. It was an easy place to find an outfit for the night ahead, swoon at the good-looking shop staff and meet mates before heading out for the night.

The store was the heart of the buzzing area known for its markets, a place where, just like the bar in Cheers, everybody knew your name. "Everyone knew Mick and Dem," says Ashison, "It's a great feeling and I love that."

Bullfrogs has been a fixture in the area for more than 18 years, nestled between retro clothing emporium The Observatory and a hippy shop selling hash pipes and tie-dye. Ashison and Brewster met in 1989 when Bullfrogs was an indoor market stall. Brewster was renting a shop and Ashison was looking for somewhere to trade. "I was selling imported arts and crafts," says Ashison, "I wanted to know retail and that was a short cut."

The pair have since fulfilled complementary roles in a retail relationship. Brewster is the man with the plan and strategy, while Ashison has the fashion flare and the creative buying eye.

"We realised we had similar mindsets and wanted the same out of the deal; we were both driven in the same way," says Ashison. "We were both willing to work hard to make a success of the business. We saw how well the guys that sold clothing in the market were doing so we railed out the shop and started selling clothes."

Brewster had retailer experience; his first job was managing a Principles concession in Topshop's Oxford Street store in London, back when the retailer was run by Sir Ralph Halpern.

Ashison's career has been more unstructured. "I did a bit of this and a bit of that," he says with a Del-boy glint in his eye. "I have always been into buying and selling". Equally important to both men was the "community atmosphere" of the shop, which they endeavour to keep, no matter how much the business expands.

It would have been easy for the duo to get carried away with their local celebrity in the 1990s. They admit that in the early days they fluked a lot of their success.

Brewster says: "There came a point when we thought 'we need to take this to the next level'. We let our staff bring their own vibe to the shop, whether that was through their music, personality or stories. But at the same time, we didn't want it to become a youth club hang-out - it had to make money."

Despite becoming a four-store chain, 11 years on Bullfrogs still has a close-knit feel. The Drapers Award win is just sinking in and the pair feel it is recognition for the hard graft they have put in over the years. "It was such a big deal for us," says Ashison. "Our staff were going mad and some people sitting around us at the Awards were frowning at their level of enthusiasm, but we encouraged them."

However, there has been a hidden drawback to the accolade. "Now everybody knows we have won the Award, people are starting to head-hunt our staff," says Ashison.

The pair do not run Bullfrogs alone. Buyer Debbie Lee has been part of the team from the beginning. At 16 she was the shop's first sales assistant and 14 years on she has moved up to handle payroll and HR, as well as being a buyer.

While giving a tour of the shop, showing off photos of colleagues at Christmas bashes through the years, Lee receives a call from a major high-street chain trying to poach her.

Ashison knows the star Bullfrogs buyer is now hot property. "It's hard to keep staff incentivised, but it's in her heart. I'd hate to lose Debbie. I love going shopping with her - we're like two girls."

As the business has grown, Ashison and Brewster have spent less and less time on the shop floor. "It's tough to let go," says Ashison, "If your staff are of a certain calibre you move forward. It's all about the standards you set. I can walk into the shop and see what is and isn't wrong. If we buy 20 dresses and the staff say 'we've sold 16', I think 'why didn't we sell 20?'"

The pair aim to strengthen the buying team ahead of a growth plan that could see Bullfrogs running up to 10 stores within the M25 area.

Ashison's first criteria when hiring new buyers is shop floor experience. "I will never have a buyer that hasn't worked on the shop floor," he says. "You can train and train people, but if they haven't got the eye, they haven't got it. We aim to promote people internally but they have to know the standards and be quick.

"We get product on the shop floor and get it out very quickly. The market has changed over the past five years. When we started, brands bought for a season and if they got it wrong that was it. Now everyone works close to the season. If you're not working that way, you're finished."

Footwear was not Bullfrogs' key category in the early days. The duo allocated a small amount of space to it, selling end-of-line Red or Dead stock along with imported shoes from Ashison's West End contacts.

One rival London-based young fashion footwear retailer says: "Although I haven't been to all Bullfrogs' stores, from what I've seen it was the clothing, not footwear, that really made the business motor, especially given the amount of womenswear. There were remarkably few men's footwear brands on offer. Saying that, the store is just right for its target audience."

It seems that Bullfrogs is beginning to ruffle a few feathers, but it is true that clothing is at the root of this retailer. The pair got their first stock from cash and carries, but switched to forward ordering in the late 1990s. The duo say the first deliveries from French Connection and Great Plains "ran out of the shop".

The retailer had harnessed the potential of Greenwich and given local shoppers "a little bit of the high street on their doorstep", including changing rooms with mirrors and music.

Brewster says that in the early days, stock turnover was high. "We didn't have to buy huge amounts because we were buying locally in London. We could test products and then buy them deep so we had massive stock turn, which was brilliant for cash flow," he says.

The business was running to plan. When a nearby antiques shop got burgled, its owners wanted out, allowing Bullfrogs to open a shoe shop around the corner from the main store. "We saw that footwear could work," says Brewster. "We had tested it and knew that if we scaled this up we could be on to something."

The pair opened the standalone footwear shop in 1999 after buying the lease for £500,000, while start-up costs were a further £100,000. With the help of eight employees, it was an immediate hit. "From its first day it never failed. It just went ballistic and filled a need in the area," says Ashison.

More shops followed, most recently in St John's Road in Clapham, south London. "When we opened there, the bizarre thing was that people actually came up and thanked us for opening a shop there," says Ashison.

Besides the one standalone footwear store in Greenwich, Bullfrogs sells a combination of shoes and clothing through its other three stores. In the main Greenwich store, 65% of the clothing on sale is Bullfrogs' own label, which is where the on-trend, fast fashion offer comes in, says Ashison. The remaining 35% is bought in, with Danish brand Numph currently selling well, alongside a resurgent French Connection.

Some 60% of the annual budget is allocated to in-season buying and Ashison says it is this, rather than third-party brands, that drives the business. "Every week there is something new," he explains. "Our job is to make sure that whatever Kate Moss is wearing, we either have our interpretation of it, or can lead customers down that road." It is perhaps testament to the store's own-label success that rival retailers have asked if Bullfrogs sells wholesale.

But Ashison has a softly, softly ethos. "The timing has got to be right," he says. "It's about getting the time in your day. We need to understand the wholesale process, because I'm not a designer - I don't know what they do. They all just seem to copy each other. Until we grasp that, I'm not sure we are ready.

"Then you have to ask: do we have enough brand gravitas? I don't think we have enough of an identity yet. But we will do."

The pair's bold strides towards becoming a multiple include plans to open one more store this year, and they are negotiating a lease on another south London store. A transactional website will be unveiled in September, selling the entire footwear offer online, with plans to add clothing when the time is right.

"The website is like a snapshot of the way we do business," says Ashison. "We make sure everything is tied down before going on to the next project. It's gently, gently, and that works."

Bullfrogs has taken more than 860sq ft of warehouse space to service the website and will hire a couple of extra staff to help reach an initial turnover target of £1,000. "It's not much, but it will increase with time," says Brewster.

The one fear is that as the business grows, the community spirit so important to the Bullfrogs boys could at best become diluted, and at worst disappear. For this reason, both Ashison and Brewster look upon the growth of Bullfrogs with bittersweet optimism.

"The more you have, the more you have to lose," says Ashison. "In the early days we were just having a good time. That has definitely changed because now we have the buzz of creating something."

Brewster agrees. "The best of Bullfrogs is yet to come, that's for sure," he says. "We are moving into the next gear."

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